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Treat claims like "the iPhone has changed everything" with some caution. It may not have changed as much as you first thought. Here's Denki's take on such claims for the benefit of indie developers seeking their fortune, regardless of platform.

Colin Anderson, Blogger

July 30, 2009

12 Min Read

The phrase I heard used more than any other at GDC this year was “the iPhone has changed everything”; with the emphasis on everything.

Every session, article and discussion seemed inexorably drawn towards the same, simplistic conclusion – the iPhone has changed everything. 

As if, somehow, all the industry’s problems had been solved in one fell swoop and the only issue left was to decide how to share the wealth our games would suddenly generate.  There were times it seriously risked descending in to a Gold Rush mentality.  

Well, at the risk of sounding like some jaded old prospector: you still need to be careful out there.  Sure, there are fortunes to be made, but it’s not as simple as grabbing your digital shovel and heading up in to the App Store Mountains. 

So before you do, here’s Denki’s take on what the iPhone really has changed, in the hope you’ll stand a better chance of striking your fortune, rather than ending up as another statistic...

One of the panel discussions I attended while at this year’s GDC was “New Opportunities for Developers in trying economic times”.  Somewhat inevitably the session turned into an iPhone love-fest, with the panel concluding our best shot was to go and make an iPhone game.  And quickly too – before we missed the bandwagon.  As if we hadn’t already.

The audience questions were mostly of the “what makes a good iPhone game” variety, which the panel answered admirably.  But just as the whole room seemed ready to descend into an iPhone coding frenzy, one of the more reserved members of the (encouragingly young) audience asked:  “I was wondering how I can get my game noticed?  It seems really hard for people to find your game once it’s released these days.”  

I’m not sure if he actually appreciated the significance of the question he asked, but he’d called out the biggest challenge facing game developers today:  getting people to notice your game has been released at all.

You see, back in days of yore, most developers rarely reached the point where they had to ponder this particular issue.  There were far more immediate concerns to address, such as getting a Publisher to agree to fund and distribute your game in the first place.  
With no direct routes to customers it was only a small number of companies who ever had the opportunity to make a game at all.  Then, assuming it made it to release (which was never a given), developers would typically be kept one step removed from the mechanics of promotion and marketing, because that would all be handled by the Publisher.

However, as I mentioned in my last blog, distribution is effectively a non-issue for developers now.  Whatever platform you make games for there is now a (more-or-less) direct way to reach your audience without involving a Publisher thanks to digital distribution.

The mistake some new developers appear to be making is to assume the promotion and marketing function previously provided by Publishers was never that important in the first place. 

In my experience this is definitely not the case.  I learned the hard way that good games don’t sell.  Well marketed games sell.  And good games that are well marketed sell lots.

In order to demonstrate why, I’m going to draw on my own experience of launching our “Denki Blocks!” game back in 2001 for Game Boy Advance, and combine this with the particularly eloquent observations of Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” and, more importantly for this piece, “The Logic Of Life”.

In “The Logic Of Life” Tim shows that people’s decisions are usually perfectly rational, however strange they may initially seem to us.  They are typically aimed at achieving the best outcome for themselves and are not simply random or irrational choices as it may appear. 

Tim gives some wonderful examples in his book, and I would heartily encourage all of you to read it.  But rather than take one of his examples and regurgitate it here I thought it would be more fun to try applying his approach to the decision process of someone choosing to buy a game, to see what we can learn.  So, with apologies to Tim in advance for butchering his work, here goes:

The first thing we need to know is precisely what someone wants when they are considering purchasing a computer game.  It could be a number of things, so to simplify matters and guarantee my assumptions are correct I’m going to use myself as the test subject here. 

When I go to purchase a computer game I’m usually looking for one thing – entertainment.  I want the most guaranteed fun for my money; which is precisely where “Denki Blocks!” failed.  Here’s why:

Upon entering a game store that stocked “Denki Blocks!” back in 2001 (which admittedly wasn’t that many... although Harrods was one, so perhaps it’s about quality rather than quantity...) I was faced with this choice: all Game Boy Advance games were priced around £30. 

So price wasn’t likely to influence my decision significantly.  If every game is around £30, they’re obviously not competing for my custom on price.  Then what are they competing on?

In a word, fun.  The question I’m asking when I ponder the games on offer is “which of the myriad of titles in front of me is most likely to provide the most enjoyment for my money?”  The important part of that sentence is the “most likely” part. 

How do I know which of these titles will actually give me the most fun?  I couldn’t possible know for sure, I’m simply weighing up likelihoods.  Now this – THIS – is where the importance of promotion and marketing becomes so crucial.

To understand why, try this experiment for yourself.  Go to a second-hand record store and find a huge pile of CDs or vinyl records (remember them?).  For any Dundonians reading this I recommend Groucho’s on Perth Road.  Now start scanning through the pile.  Okay?  Let me know when you’re done...

[You wait. Time passes.  Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.]

Right – now answer this: which ones did you pause at?  Precisely!  The ones you’d already heard of and the ones with cool covers or names that caught your attention.  The rest you skipped straight past as though they were invisible. 

Why?  Because you had absolutely no information on which to base your decision – you had no way of judging the quality and coming to a rational decision, so you didn’t even waste your time trying.  Tim’s definitely right – we’re all way more rational than we might first assume.

And it doesn’t stop there – even if you did have the means to find out the relative quality of each and every album for yourself, using your iPhone and the AllMusic guide say, you simply don’t have the time.  You may well have skipped straight past a dozen albums you would love.  You could have completely ignored your favourite album you’ll never hear.  The quality really doesn’t matter at that point, because you don’t even notice it – it’s totally invisible to you.

This is why saturation advertising used to be so effective for selling games (or anything else for that matter).  It guaranteed we’d at least know about the game by the time we entered the store, which as I’ve just illustrated, is half the battle.  It’s immediately moved from the invisible majority to the visible minority.  

All of which helps explains the advice our visionary questioner was offered by the expert panel.  Their advice was, essentially, “invest in great marketing and PR.  It’s really expensive, but worth it.”

There’s some truth in that, but come on; surely if it was that simple, every iPhone game would have sold at least a million copies?  If developers were guaranteed to make their money back in additional sales simply by investing in expensive marketing and PR then investing in marketing and PR becomes a no-brainer.  But it’s not – it’s still a big risk.

This illustrates a major problem with the advent of the iPhone games market.  It’s seen by many - analysts and developers alike – as the saviour of indie developers; low barrier to entry, low costs, and an audience of millions.

Of course it’s not nearly that simple.  

The truth is that Apple has simply changed the route to market - not the actual nature of the market itself.  People still want what they’ve always wanted from the market: entertainment in my case. 

Now though, instead of having thirty games to choose from in any given month, served up to them by the major publishers, they have thirty games a day to choose from served up by a seemingly infinite number of independent developers.  It solves some of the industry’s biggest, most long-standing problems, and simultaneously creates a whole bunch of new ones.

There are parallels here between the current indie games scene and the indie music scene that emerged back in the late 70s and early 80s.  Both movements were the result of major technological change.  In our case it’s been fast network connections and digital distribution/payment solutions.  In theirs it was portable, high-quality recording equipment and affordable vinyl pressing plants.  

Until then, the major labels owned all the pressing plants.  Even if an aspiring band found the means to record an album there was simply no way of getting it duplicated without a label on your side.  Once it was possible to manufacture and duplicate recordings in smaller numbers, things changed.

What this new technology did was decrease the control of large music publishing companies and create fresh opportunities to release music that wouldn’t have been released before.  However, it did not change the fact that in order to be successful, the music still had to find an audience.

We’re facing the same situation in the games industry today: the major ‘labels’ no longer control the means of distribution.  But someone still has to do the marketing, the promotion and audience building.  And if a Publisher won’t be doing it, then it all falls squarely upon the shoulders of the developer, so it’s important to be prepared.

If I’d been on that particular panel at GDC, my advice would have been slightly different.  I would have suggested looking at other industries, and particularly the indie music scene to identify ways people or companies have managed to get their products noticed without spending huge budgets on advertising and PR.  

While unlikely to provide ready-made solutions they could certainly be used as inspiration to find innovative ways of getting your own games noticed.

People often talk about social networking and word-of-mouth advertising in the same way developers talk of the iPhone: it’s changed everything.  But, again, it hasn’t really.

If you want people to notice your game and have it sell – well – you need more than a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  For any long-term success, you have to create something of real underlying value.  Something a bit different; something with a twist; something unfamiliar.

There are lots of ways to do that of course, but regardless of the process the end product has to be remarkable in some way; something players will want to tell their friends about.

Otherwise why should anyone care?  Think about it: why would you care?  If you hadn’t made it, and didn’t know anything about it, what would make you want to call your friends and tell them about this game you’ve just played?

At Denki we’ve established our own tool to help us create games we’d want to tell our friends about.  We call it the Denki Difference and I’ll talk about this in more detail over the coming months.

But, in summary then – the iPhone has changed the route to market, not the market demands.  If you’re a developer investing any more than your free time in making an iPhone game it’s really, really important you take time to understand that difference. 

To be clear, none of this is a criticism of the iPhone.  I love my iPhone and have bought some truly enjoyable games from a very wide range of developers – many of them based right here in Dundee no less.  It’s given me access to many hours of entertainment I would never have had otherwise and as an independent developer myself I recognise and appreciate the healthier balance it has brought to developer/publisher relations.

The difficulties I describe aren’t platform specific; they affect every platform, and every game released.  It just so happens that the easy route to market provided by iPhone exposes far more developers to the problem than ever before.  Which, again, only reinforces how many new opportunities the iPhone has created for developers in the first place.

Just be sure to consider any assertions such as “the iPhone has changed everything” or “building an iPhone app is a quick way to fame and fortune” carefully before drawing any firm conclusions.  They are claims that are dangerously plausible and which I currently consider to be widely misunderstood throughout the industry.

But you already knew all that – so what are you all waiting for?  Go grab them digital picks ‘n’ shovels and get diggin’!


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